(TNS) – A decade or more ago, the conversation was about giant cell phone towers – and how people didn’t want them in their proverbial backyards.
Steve Travers, now director of Catasauqua, recalls attending zoning board hearings in Delaware County, where officials spoke about the horror they could become.
Meanwhile, he said, “everyone is sitting there on their cell phones.”
Then it was the little cell phone towers on top of buildings. They are now boxes on street poles capable of producing high speed 4G Internet networks and, more recently, 5G.
âIn five years it will be something else,â Travers said.
Four major mobile operators have already started deploying 5G antennas and boxes, known as âsmall cellular nodesâ or âsmall wireless facilities,â in dozens of major US cities.
Local municipalities are preparing.
In February 2020, the Township of Lower Macungie became the first municipality in Lehigh Valley to pass a zoning ordinance guiding the size, placement, construction and maintenance of potential 5G cells and antennas. The nodes can be mounted on street lights, utility poles, buildings and similar structures.
“We had a unified desire to move forward,” said Commissioner Ron Beitler. âWe recognize that this is next level technology. We want it for economic development, but we must also be aware that these facilities must be properly seen. “
In other words, the municipalities want to prevent boxes from appearing in front of residents’ windows.
A recently signed state law provides a legislative framework for the deployment of âsmall wireless facilitiesâ – the infrastructure that supports 4G and 5G. This includes where devices can go and to what extent local governments can control this. That means Lower Macungie will have to reconsider its ordinance, Beitler said, but offers other cities, townships and boroughs in the region a clear signal on how to proceed.
The law standardizes permit costs and zoning requirements for boxes installed in public rights-of-way, while retaining the ability of the local municipality to customize the design for historic neighborhoods or environmental concerns.
1G only transmitted analog voice in the 1980s, 2G compatible digital voice in the 1990s, 3G added the Internet to phones in the early 2000s, and 4G expanded the reach of this data in 2009. 5G is the next generation of mobile internet connectivity, with much faster speeds – 10 to 100 times faster than 4G – and the ability to turn on homes, cars, refrigerators or what is called the Internet of “smart” things.
The wireless industry has been pushing for the new law for years, said Dan Cohen of the Cohen Law Group, a Pittsburgh firm that represents local governments in wireless and broadband litigation. An early draft of the bill about four years ago would have removed local zoning power over these wireless facilities and would not have allowed municipalities to govern design guidelines. Over the past two months, Pennsylvania city associations, industry representatives and state legislators have come together to negotiate a bill that is more acceptable to both sides, said Cohen, who participated in the negotiations.
Governor Tom Wolf enacted the Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act on June 30.
More than three dozen states have passed some version of the law, said Peter Schweyer, co-sponsor of the original House bill and representative for the state of Allentown. It is especially necessary, he said, in Pennsylvania, a Commonwealth with an unusually large number of municipalities – 2,800 – all with their own rules. The aim is to level the playing field so that companies do not choose the municipalities in which to build networks.
âIf Pennsylvania as a whole is to be competitiveâ¦ we need to deploy 5G statewide,â he said. âWe should already have a fully-built 5G platform in Allentown, and we’re a long way from it. “
Instead, during the pandemic, the Allentown School District distributed thousands of hotspots to students without home Wi-Fi. While everyone was at home streaming movies, the students had less Internet bandwidth for homework.
âWe had to do something to encourage this development,â Schweyer said.
Officials in the city of Allentown passed its own Small Wireless Cell Ordinance, which is similar to the outlines of state law, in July 2020. The Cohen law firm has worked with more than 200 municipalities in Pennsylvania to develop similar ordinances.
Small wireless installations, or boxes, already exist on poles in many communities in a fragmented fashion. The wireless industry began rolling out them in 2012 to increase their coverage capabilities, even though municipalities didn’t have the zoning ordinances to manage them, Cohen said. These boxes, which are 28 cubic feet at most, have 4G capabilities and only need an antenna switch to become 5G compatible.
A big legal change for municipalities was a 2018 Federal Communications Commission ordinance that defined small cell facilities and removed some regulatory barriers to the deployment of broadband infrastructure by setting limits on fees and cosmetic control. While this helped kick-start the rollout in major US cities, coverage remains patchy as these cells have yet to be rolled out on a large scale and consistently.
5G cells require more access points to achieve the same broadband coverage. A 2015 Aspen Institute document noted that this was a regulatory challenge for policymakers “to ensure access to this dramatically increased number of sites.”
A challenge indeed: Portland, Oregon challenged these FCC orders, but a federal appeals court dismissed the challenge, though the city was granted the right to at least specify aesthetic standards. Portland has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last week not to hear the case.
Verizon first approached Catasauqua nearly three years ago to tie up with a few borough-owned posts, Travers said. The company submitted a deal just before the pandemic, which borough officials were waiting to act on until the Portland case was settled.
The state’s new law sets guidelines for moving forward, Travers said.
âThey will be there no matter what you do,â he said. âYou get them, but at least now we can regulate the aesthetics of them. “
The deployment of 5G has experienced a setback worldwide, due to the lack of conclusive studies on the health impacts of radiofrequency wave emission associated with 5G. 5G systems operate at frequencies close to those used by current cellular networks – in 2019, the FCC chairman announced he would maintain existing RF exposure limits – but they will also use millimeter waves to manage a high data traffic.
A group of doctors and scientists in 2017 launched an online appeal to the European Union asking for a moratorium on the deployment of 5G until these health effects can be studied.
A 2019 study in the journal Environmental Research did not find a noticeable increase in daily RF exposure in the environment since 2012 despite the vast increase in the use of cellphones and small cellular nodes.
Exposure levels could increase temporarily during the early stages of 5G implementation, as it will work in parallel with the current mobile communications system, according to information shared by the International Telecommunications Union at a meeting. experts in Italy in 2017. But in the long term, scientists do not expect an increase in exposure in the global environment, because small cells are low power devices and shorter range, for example. opposed to large cell towers emitting high power over a much wider range.
Businesses and trade associations like the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association applaud Pennsylvania’s legislation, citing a Boston Consulting Group study that estimates 5G deployment will create 126,500 jobs and more than $ 45 billion in GDP growth in Pennsylvania by 2030.
âIn rural and hard-to-serve areas, these reforms can boost investment and wireless deployment, helping to bridge the digital divide,â said spokesperson Caitlin Miller.
It is difficult to determine how soon 5G will be rolled out in communities around the world. CTIA, the trade group, predicts that the number of small cells will increase from around 150,000 today to 800,000 by the end of 2026..
âWhat we’ve seen is a slow but sure acceleration of this deployment,â Cohen said.
Â© 2021 The Morning Call. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.